Before Kristallnacht: forgotten pre-Nazi horrors

Before Kristallnacht: forgotten pre-Nazi horrors

Two weeks ago, the world observed the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a nation-wide Nazi  rampage against German Jews and their property (the night of Nov. 8-9, 1938).  Numerous synagogues were burned, homes were ransacked, people beaten, nearly a hundred murdered and thousands arrested and temporarily imprisoned.  It was a foretaste of far worse events to come.

German soldiers attack Russian forces at Zurawno (my parents’ native shtetl) in 1915.

In synagogue that week, I listened to a D’var Torah (a sermon) delivered by a congregant who remembered her grandparents’ roots in a southeastern border region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 30 years before Kristallnacht.  This reminded me of my own parents’ childhood memories from about that time in nearby Galicia.  What is especially poignant is that this brutal period, especially during and after World War I, cost the widespread destruction of tens of thousands of Jewish homes and Jewish lives — in bloody pogroms and random acts of anti-Semitic violence, at the hands variously of Czarist Russian soldiers, Ukrainian rebels, White Russian counter-revolutionaries, and some Poles — yet this is mostly forgotten today.  The figure of 60,000 Jewish deaths sticks in my mind; despite its great magnitude, it is a mere one percent of the six million who perished 20-25 years later, many within this same expanse of territory.

During WW I, my father’s family fled into the interior of the Austrian Empire, to what is now the Czech Republic.  (His brother lost a leg fighting for Austria on the Italian front.)  My mother’s family stuck it out in Zurawno in Eastern Galicia.  But both remember the post-war battles between Poles & Ukrainians, and later between Russians & Poles.  My father received a lifelong facial scar (his “dueling scar”) as a kid playing at war in the abandoned trenches, and he remembered a dead Russian soldier on a raft floating on the Dniester River.  My mother recalled the chill her family felt when a Polish soldier bellowed, “come over here, little Jew,” to her little brother — luckily to give the handsome fair-haired child a piece of candy rather than to administer a blow as they feared.  (As an adult, this boy joined his two brothers in Israel, where they gave rise to three generations of progeny.)

With Sarah Jacobs’ permission, here are the pertinent parts of her talk, which she linked to the reading of that week, the Vayetze portion of Genesis, which includes the Patriarch Jacob’s flight in what may be regarded as the first instance of Jewish Galut, exile:

. . .  One of my teachers, Rabbi Isaiah Wolgemouth, was sent to Dachau the day after Kristallnacht and was ransomed from the Nazis by cousins who were members of Ansche Chesed [our synagogue in New York]. You can see their names on one of the white marble plaques in the West End lobby.

. . .  I have been researching my family history on the Internet for the past several years. My grandparents came to the states before WW I. They didn’t talk a whole lot about their lives before they got to New York. In Boston parlance they came from “the other side.” If you asked my grandmother where she came from she would say ‘I came from the grainits,” the border. My grandfather would talk about the blotte…the mud in his shtetl.

However, through the magic of the Internet, I have gotten to know something more of the places that they came from. Earlier this year, my husband David bought me a tablet computer to use on my trips to Boston to take care of my mother. Through the tablet I discovered the wonder of Google books. I have always been a big reader and I tend to binge read. I suppose that if I were a scholar I would have organized my reading in a systematic way, but I’m not a scholar. I have simply followed threads as they have interested me. Learning about my family’s background has led me to understand why more Jews didn’t leave in the early days of the Nazi regime.

My grandmother came from outside of Czernowitz … a great center of culture on the eastern edge of the Austrian Empire. It was known as the Paris of the east. There was a famous Yiddish conference held there in1908.

Following the thread of my grandmother’s family, I discovered that my grandmother’s uncle was the only Jewish mayor of the town of Zastavna in the outskirts of Czernowitz. Searching Google for Zastavna I found a book written by two American journalists, John Reed [portrayed by Warren Beatty in “Reds”] and Boardman Robinson who snuck behind Russian lines during WW I. The book had a pencil drawing of the landscape outside of Zastavna! The foggy mythic places of my grandmother’s girlhood were real!

The authors of the book wrote about life on the Eastern front. They tried to depict everyday life behind the lines of war. They tended to depict different ethnic types almost cartoonishly. Yes, the Jews rub their hands and dicker about money. The authors were clearly NOT philo-Semites. But they mentioned in an offhanded way that all Jewish houses in the area were destroyed even though the war had not actually gone through the town. The other houses, belonging to non–Jews were all intact.

The Reed and Robinson book had me searching for other contemporary reports of life on the Eastern front. I was especially interested in reading about the conditions in the Bukovina, and Podolia, the regions where my grandparents came from. I hadn’t realized until I had begun reading, that before the Holocaust the two worst eras in Jewish history were the Crusades, and the period between 1904 and 1919.

I read lots of books including: “The Slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine in 1919,” “The Jews in the Eastern War Zone,” “The Jewish Pogroms of the Ukraine.” William Curtis Stiles, a Protestant minister here in New York, wrote a 300-page book in 1908, “Out of Kishinev,” with the thesis that it was a Christian American duty to help the Jews in the Ukraine. Think about how all of us were fighting for justice in [Darfur, Sudan]; that’s what Americans and Brits were doing during the era of pogroms.

. . .  So what was life like for Jews living in the Ukraine during WW I?  It was, in a word, horrible. Think about all of the stories that you have ever heard about the early days of the Shoah, the round ups, the evictions from homes, the looting of property, the starvation, the terror, and public humiliations. All of it terrifyingly familiar to us from the Shoah — even the fact of Jews expelled from their home towns and transported in — cattle cars.

One particularly disturbing aspect of those pogroms is the public rapes of women – yes, mass rapes taking place in the town squares; you can’t get more public than that.  . . .

Now, it isn’t like life for Jews in Eastern Europe was that peachy before 1904 and the Kishinev pogrom. I’m not going to take you through all of the history of Galicia, Lithuania and Poland. It’s just too complicated. But basically Jews had at best, severely limited civil rights. The many laws (650 in 1888) that were anti-Jewish were often changed at a moment’s notice. Jews could only live in small towns, or only in cities or only in villages or only in –small towns. The rules could and would change overnight. If you were in the wrong place you just had to pick up and leave in a week or 24 hours. How livings could be earned by Jews was determined by the government. The irrationality of the laws was made worse by the fact that the laws would often change at a moment’s notice.

After WW I came to an end, thousands and thousands of Jews were displaced from their homes by both the ravages of war and the anti-Jewish pogroms. Many emigrated to the States or to Israel or elsewhere around the world. Many Jews though moved within Europe.  . . . My relatives moved from Czernowitz and Zastavna to Vienna.

The people who moved further west or to the bigger cities prospered. They learned during those horrible decades that you can survive terrible times and come out ahead in the end. They knew how to survive expulsion by cattle car, starvation, crazy racist laws, and rape as an act of war as well the death and torture of loved ones. People who were in their teens and twenties and thirties during the horrible first decades of the 20th century, and were the heads of families during the early days of the third Reich, had learned how to manage, how to adapt under times of crazy anti-Jewish laws.

They just weren’t prepared to deal with extermination camps.  . . .

By | 2013-11-25T12:09:00-05:00 November 25th, 2013|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

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